Map is sometimes the territory
MAP IS SOMETIMES THE TERRITORY: Nearly a treasure map of where populations have grown in the Fourth Corner, Whatcom County Council this week approved a new division of voting precincts, increasing the number of county precincts from 120 to 178. State law requires that no more than 1,500 registered voters can reside in a precinct, the smallest unit in our political system, meaning county auditors and election offices across the state have been at work adjusting these political boundaries, using new Census data to make them as equal as possible in terms of numbers of voters. The actual political beliefs expressed within these precincts is another matter, and as the country has become more aggressively polarized, so too have Whatcom’s political divisions.
Most cities in Whatcom County will receive a small increase in precincts, with Lynden more than doubling its portion from 5 to 11. Bellingham adds 20 precincts, raising the number from 47 to 67. A comparable increase was proposed for the unincorporated county, adding voting precincts there from 57 to 83, reflecting the amount of growth the county has permitted in rural lands. Precincts are balanced and portioned among Whatcom’s three representative districts for countywide elective offices.
Perhaps the most remarkable transformations are changes in state legislative districts and federal congressional districts brought on by regional population growth. Progressive districts in the south county continue to move into the 40th Legislative District, with a large portion of Bellingham now voting with west Skagit and the San Juan islands, increasing conservative polarity of the 42nd District north. Exacerbating the divide, Whatcom County is now also split into two congressional districts, again joining Bellingham to a sliver of populous coastal communities while Whatcom east and north is linked with a geographically large rural district inland.
These are sensible changes; but the cumulative effect is the continuing isolation of the county from its county seat, Bellingham.
“Re-designing the precincts is a complicated process,” Whatcom County Auditor Debbie Adelstein explained. “The State Redistricting Commission created a new Congressional District #1, which affects all of Whatcom County voters outside of Bellingham, as well as some changes to state legislative districts,” she said.
“The work of the local council redistricting committee required movement of some of the voters inside of Bellingham and the western portion of Lynden in order to balance the population shifts in the County Council districts,” Adelstein continued. “We also needed to bring the size of some of our existing precincts into compliance with state requirements and to allow for future growth. All of these must be taken into account as precinct lines are drawn.”
In their evening session, County Council passed an interim ordinance that allows the proposed precinct reassignments to go into effect immediately. The ordinance allows the auditor to begin mailing tens of thousands of new voter ID cards to voters in new or adjusted precincts. That’s a necessary step before candidates may officially file in Whatcom County for state and federal office. The Auditor’s Office plans to mail those cards this week. Candidates may begin to file for office by mail at the end of this month, with the official filing week deadline pushed to mid-May.
Superior Court races and a position with the Whatcom County Public Utilities District will be on the 2012 ballot, along with state representative positions for the 40th and 42nd legislative districts. Races for the federal House of Representatives—in particular, the new and competitive 1st Congressional District—should be highly charged by both presidential politics and a fierce, close race for governor. A number of public initiatives are expected to further electrify the ballot.
Tamping that fire, it seems a torpor is descending on Whatcom County politics as communities that once needed to convince one another as a swing district are instead intensely polarized. As Republican strength rebounds in Olympia, gridlock and paralysis grows.
The roadblocks and obstructions, dogwhistles and moonbeams, that are the gold standard of conservative representatives in the north county are of little interest or an active threat to representatives to the south, genuinely engaged in challenging policy issues like education and social justice. Had voters not wisely overturned district-only voting in 2008, we might imagine a similar malaise and paralysis drifting over and enveloping county offices as well.
Our voting precincts not only look like the voters who reside within them, but are shaped and bulwarked over time by the officials elected by them, in a self-referential, self-reinforcing loop.
It cannot be wholly an accident, for example, that an elected council that favors few controls on rural growth would witness an increase in the number of rural voting precincts and might expect heightened support for their reelection from those new rural precincts, all of which permits and reinforces their policies (or lack of policies) about growth as “the will of the people.” Now add to that a refusal by those elected council members to tax or charge rural residents for the demands their growth places on city services—police, fire, roads, utilities—and the equation starts to become downright hostile to city residents who are charged for those services. When the loop is additionally closed by gerrymandering or boundary jiggering, the oxygen of fresh ideas cannot enter the system.
Democrats in the 42nd District will have to work very, very hard in 2012 to find effective challengers for state office. Republicans have had to work similarly hard in the 40th District, to the point where for the longest time they essentially gave up even trying. That kind of fixed outcome and absence of options is seldom healthy for democracy.
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